October 18, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Helen Benedict and Eyad Awwadawnan's book Map of Hope and Sorrow, which shares the stories of five refugees stuck in Greece, is one of the year's most important and heartrending books.
Dina Nayeri wrote of the book:
"Simple, powerful stories told in refugees' own voices. I couldn't stop reading, hand to mouth, my chest tightening. A vital collaboration between two sharply observant writers who know how to get out of the way."
Helen Benedict and Eyad Awwadawnan are co-authors of Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece. Here they each choose some songs and explain why.
Helen Benedict and Eyad Awwadawnan
The two of us met four years ago, when Helen was on the Greek island of Samos to research the plight of the refugees there, and Eyad, who had fled the Syrian war with his family, was living there in the refugee camp. We are now co-authors of Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, which features five people who fled for their lives from various countries, only to find themselves robbed of their rights in Greece, the gateway to Europe.
People flee to Europe because they believe that this where they will find the freedom, rights and dignity they have lost at home. Instead, they are finding the same kind of persecution, demonization and degradation that met Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War Two. Europe has broken the pledge it made in the 1951 Refugee Convention never to treat refugees like that again. Our book explains why, and shows how this breakdown of decency is affecting real people in real time.
We chose to frame our book around two important principals: to give our subjects a place to tell their stories in their own words, instead of doing it for them; and to encourage them to tell us their whole life stories from childhood to today, so as not to define them only by their experiences as refugees. The result is an unusual book that combines literary narrative with oral history, capturing the poignancy, beauty and power of our subjects’ voices.
In this same spirit, we have put together the playlist: songs important to both of us and also to the people featured in the book. Among the people in Map of Hope and Sorrow are Hasan and Asmahan, both Syrian; a young Afghan named Mursal; and a young Nigerian called Evans. We think these songs are all beautiful in their own right, but they even more powerful when you know the stories behind them. Here are the songs we all chose, and why.
Mursal, the Afghan girl in our book who was only 21 when Helen met her, escaped from the Taliban with her family in 2019. She chose this Dari song by famous Afghan pop star, Aryana Sayeed, because, she said, it helps her feel strong and less alone. “This song it helps me realize that I am not the only girl who is fighting and facing problems, and I should fight not only for myself but for those women who can’t speak now because they were killed.”
Evans had to flee for his life from Nigeria to escape the lethal homophobic culture and laws there. He chose this lovely song because Drille is from his state, Benin, in Nigeria, and because, he said, it makes him remember the love he lost while also giving him hope.
Asmahan, a Syrian in her 40s who had to leave her children when she fled and whose story is in the book, told Eyad that her favorite song is this one sung by a young boy. "My son Ismail sent me this song after he left Syria for Turkey. He told me, ‘I miss you so much, I miss my siblings and our house, I want to eat your food.’ I used to listen to it during the night and cry. Even now I still feel sad every time I hear it because look what life has done to us.”
Hasan, the Syrian whose story opens our book, chose this traditional Arabic song by a famous singer from his own city of Manbij, Syria, because it was his mother's favorite. “She loved that song and asked me to sing it to her,” Hasan told Helen. “It is a song that means a lot to me although it causes me some mental pain. I sung it over the phone to her the day she died.” Hasan used to sing this song a lot when he was trapped in the same island camp as Eyad.
Eyad Awwadawnan’s Songs
I often lose myself when I speak, or when I want to speak… I feel like my tongue is tied down, my words escape me, and blackness occupies my mind. Many people resort to various creative outlets at moments like this; for me, my outlet is writing. In writing, I find a world in which I can be free and without fear. Music, too, being the melodious twin of writing, can create a rumbling that deepens the rift in the rock in my chest, so that its lava may spew free. One of the songs that does this for me is Ya Heef, which was banned in Syria because it summarized the darkest parts of our history and the ugliest parts of our present, while also glorifying a revolution that itself was ignited with a song and a rose.
This song is dedicated to the figurative “keeper” of the Syrian revolution, Abdul Basit Al Sarout, whose death announcement made me cry as if I had lost one of my closest friends. This song is the thread that connects me to my homeland; the mirror in which, every time I pass by it, I see our blood, the bags of belongings that symbolize our displacement, and the dinghies that failed to save us from the ocean’s jaws. It is a reminder not to forget that the revolution still lives inside loyal souls.
Helen Benedict’s Songs
Johnny Falsetto, a musician from Zimbabwe, met Mohamed Sarrar, who is Sudanese, when they were both working on the play, The Jungle, about the notorious refugee camp in Calais, France. Sarrar had been writing music when he was living in the real camp, so they joined up with Syrian poet, Ahmad, to write and record this album. I met them when the play came to New York, and fell in love with this record, which is about the pain and experience of being wrenched from one’s homeland. This song, Amai, mounts from a gentle ballad in Falsetto’s voice to a cry of agony from Sarrar. The collaboration of these musicians, drawing from their three countries, is a perfect example of the hope and resilience of the refugees in our book, and of the way art transcends race, culture and religion and, above all, borders.
This theme music for the iconic if disturbingly sexist film, Zorba the Greek, was released in 1964 and soon came to define a romantic view of Greece for me and many of my generation. Yet its composer, Mikis Theodorakis, was imprisoned, tortured and exiled several times for his politics: first for fighting in the resistance during World War II; then for speaking out against tyranny during Greek civil war of the 1950s; and again in the 1960s by the oppressive military junta of the time that also banned his music. Whenever I’m in Greece, I search for this music on the radio because it reminds me that there is another side to the country than its current brutality toward refugees – a side that loves freedom.
Intricate bouzouki music like this crosses so closely with the oud music of the Middle East that I see it as a powerful example of the way East and West blend in Greece, especially in the Northern Aegean near Turkey, where most of the islands that hold refugee camps lie. It is a reminder of how false borders are, and how art can transcend such petty concerns as who belongs to which patch of land and where.
Helen Benedict is a recipient of the 2021 PEN Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History and the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism. She is the author of 13 books, including the award-winning The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women at War Serving in Iraq, and the novel Wolf Season. Her writing inspired both a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of people sexually assaulted in the military and the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Invisible War. She is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, New York.
Eyad Awwadawnan, formerly a law student from Damascus, Syria, is a writer and poet currently living as an asylum-seeker in Reykjavik, Iceland. During his four years in Greece, he worked as a cultural mediator, translator and interpreter for various NGOs.